FringeReview UK 2019
Constance Chow played York Bowen’s Reverie Op 86, Schuman’’s Papillons Op 2, Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales and the fourth movement from Miroirs, ‘Alborada del gracioso’.
St Nicholas hosts yet another fresh talent who’s played extensively in the UK and internationally. Hong Kong-born Constance Chow gave a piano recital full of reverie and variations, with the surprise coming first.
Chow’s tone is bright and full, given less help here than it might by the otherwise excellent French Elysian piano, which emits an enharmonic buzz – fearfully distracting for the pianist, but virtually inaudible otherwise: only a few seasoned concert-goers notice it.
York Bowen (1884-1961) used to be mentioned in the same breath as Arnold Bax (1883-1953) and Benjamin Dale (1885-1943) – the latter never recovered from his incarceration in WW1. They were all from the go-ahead Wagner-Liszt oriented Royal Academy of Music, not the stricter RCM run mainly by Stanford. More precocious they seemed to have slimmer resources to fall back on. But this is deceptive and their music, given a bad press from the mid 20th century, has recovered – Bax being the largest figure, and Bowen and Dale amongst others showing they were more than touched with genius. The supremely virtuosic Bowen too was the go-to British pianist when recording anything from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 (a famed recording) to his own work.
Bowen’s output centres round the piano but embraces three symphonies, four piano concerti, and six Sonatas as well as many for other instruments (two fro viola). Known as the British Rachmaninov, he’s appearing more frequently now.
Bowen’s Reverie Op 86 is a mid-period piece from the 1920s. The Reverie itself’s acutely Russian in feel, like a rarely laid-back summer Rachmaninov (his Prelude Op 32/11) or Liapunov, even the sterner Medtner. It’s memorable with tis eight-note with emphasis on the first and fourth notes. It’s refracted through a haze of dying falls in summer, which Chow evokes in a slow cascade serving the music particularly well with her crystalline sense of meditation and silence. It serves her elsewhere too.
Schumann’s Papillons Op 2 is a series of linked dances – a kind of informal set of variations – clearly recognizable as such. Chow’s perfectly attuned to this work too, more ruminative Schumann, and like his Abegg Variations Op 1 in not demanding too much bristling virtuosity: no Clara Schuman yet on the horizon. The whole seems like stretched lendler rhythm with unusual pulses moving the work from a certain velocity to near-silence again. Chow’s command of Schumann’s drifty way with sashaying into an dot of insistent rhythms and the sudden slow pulses f the opening and close are magical. Chow has a particular affinity with suggestive spaces.
Not so many of those in another informal set of variations, Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales from 1911, premiered anonymously where the audience were asked to guess who the composer was. No-one bar one friend identified them as Ravel’s. These eight pieces again feel like variation form in waltz form but aren’t quite that. Granted a lot of material is repeated and in essence they are. They’re certainly remarkable for introducing the brasher more bristling piano textures, a more populist Ravel unleashed with his first opera L’Heure Espagnole (1909) perhaps, and which re-surfaced in La Valse and Boléro to name two. The explosive opening doesn’t quite translate on this piano, and there’s a rare (almost missable) rhythmic instability instantly corrected – Chow’s a consummate player and deserves the best. It’s the acoustic too, which rewards Chow’s quieter passages here, which again paly out magically.
She followed with the similar fourth movement from Miroirs, ‘Alborada del gracioso’, the Jester’s Morning Song, or Aubade in French. I wish there’d been a contrast, perhaps another piece (‘Une Barque sur L’Ocean’) preceding the Valses Nobles since you need a rousing end. And chow in particular seems utterly attuned to Miroirs as a whole. No matter. Chow dispatched this with all the swagger and strut of a skirl of laughter in your ear as you struggle awake. Her rhythms were clean and bouncy as well as inevitably Spanish; and she managed to reinvest the whole with an edge of danger.
It’d be wonderful to see Chow back with more British and French repertoire, from the 20th century perhaps most of all. And on this evidence more Schumann please.